Trauma has a weird way of defining our mental and physical state for the weeks, months, and even years to follow. The human mind is incredibly complex, and I will admit, I know very little about how it works to create the emotions and feelings that we experience on a daily basis. What I do know, is that lately I have felt more emotions in one day than I used to in a week. I’m tired. I’m burning both ends of my mental candle. Today, I’m making the conscious decision. Today I’m telling my story to the world. Today I’m flipping the script, and I Am a Victim No More.
I was Sexually Assaulted. Three times. Now, YOU may say that I wasn’t, you may say it’s impossible, you may say that it was my fault or that I should have known better. I’ll tell you this. I don’t care what you think. I told myself the same lies, over and over again, and it has made my life so much worse than it would have been had I opened up to the appropriate people after the first incident.
You see, the three assaults didn’t happen in succession. That’s the hard part for people to understand about my story. The first time I was assaulted, I was intoxicated and in a hotel room that I shouldn’t have been in, but I tried to leave. Yes, you read that right, I TRIED TO LEAVE. This woman got out of her bed (which I had not been in) and grabbed ahold of me, keeping me from walking out. From there, the first assault happened. I didn’t believe this was happening, and I didn’t really know what to say, so I stayed silent. I wish now that I had the strength to say ‘No’ out loud, but I was silent.
The next day I told myself all of the lies. “An officer in the US Air Force can’t be assaulted by an enlisted person.” “A man can’t be assaulted by a woman.” “You are to blame because you went to her room drunk.” “You are going to lose your career because she probably already accused you.” “Nobody will actually believe you.” “If you tell a SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator) they will just tell you it’s your fault.”
The fear and paranoia that resulted from telling myself those lies created the next lie, and it was the worst of all. “If you upset her, or make her feel the wrong way, she will report you for sexual assault. There goes your family, your flying job, and your entire career. Everything you’ve worked so hard for will be gone, and the people you love will be gone too.” I tried to shake it, I didn’t want to believe it, but as the day went on, I told myself that lie enough times that it became true in my fragile mind. And that lie dictated my actions for the next nine miserable weeks.
I did what she wanted, drank myself silly to numb the pain of what I was doing. I told myself that I was doing it for my family, for my career, but it didn’t really help. Eventually, I just had to compartmentalize my life. I was the husband and dad when I was home, I was the aviator and instructor when I was at work, and when ‘she’ messaged me I was whatever she wanted me to be. Whether illicit text messages, videos, etc. I just had to pretend I was texting my wife what I was saying. I lied to her so many times that it started to just become easy to play along. The part that kept me going at work was the ability to step into a briefing room and own it. I could put the rest of the world aside and prepare my students to be strong, fast, and lethal. Everything I didn’t feel when I wasn’t flying.
Then, it all began to fall apart. She told her husband she was having an affair and gave him plenty of clues that led straight to me. This was something she promised would never happen, and after the 9 weeks I survived through, I should have known it was just another lie she was telling me. Her husband would later tell me in a personal conversation that she is manipulative and can’t take ‘No’ for an answer. If things don’t go the way she wants, she will continue to push until they do. That’s when it clicked again in my brain. I needed to talk to someone. I needed to tell our SARC what had happened to me. But, as quickly as that voice spoke in my head, the other voice chimed in and out came the next lie. “If you go now, they will look at when you made your report, compare it to when he found out, and everyone will just think you were protecting yourself. Oh, and by the way, it’s still your fault.”
A few miserable months went by. I was constantly answering inquisitive text messages from her husband. Hiding it all from my wife in the process. He would stop by our vault where we briefed and just stand around. Sometimes I’d come out of a brief and immediately begin to panic inside as I saw him. I stopped eating, stopped working out, and had an almost impossible time sleeping at night. Every day I thought this nightmare that I’d been living would finish with a meeting with a commander and the beginning of the end of my career.
Finally, the house of cards came crashing down. A Command Directed Investigation (CDI) opened up with me being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with this woman. I finally talked to the SARC, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I needed to tell my story to someone, and maybe they could help me. Turns out, I needed it more than I ever could have known. Talking to the SARC was the best thing I had done to that point. I told my story and waited to be judged, but instead, he told me that everything I had done was normal. The emotions, the irrational thought and behavior, the fear, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts were all normal and they were okay to feel (well, minus the suicidal thoughts). I felt free. In that moment I didn’t care what was happening outside of that room. Someone knew my story, and someone accepted what I had felt. That is what finally gave me the courage to tell my wife.
That part was hard. It still is at times. But I’ve never felt more loved and understood by my wife in all our years of marriage. I had finally let myself be vulnerable in front of her. The hardest part to get over is knowing that I should have trusted her and told her right from the start. I have always had a hard time speaking about feelings that I considered ‘weak.’ Now, I understand that no human emotion or feeling is a sign of weakness. Hiding them is. Letting others in and communicating your emotions to someone you trust is strength.
I still think about the ‘what-if?’ points in this whole situation. It doesn’t make anything better, and it doesn’t change what is happening to me now, but I can’t help it. All I know is that I wish I had spoken up sooner. I wish I had gotten people involved when I first was assaulted, and maybe I could have avoided the other two times and all the garbage in-between.
But, there isn’t anything I can do about that. That’s been the hardest part. Letting go. Letting go of everything that I’ve blamed myself for, and accepting myself for who I am. Standing up, walking out of the shadows, and trying to take the pieces of my life back into my own hands so that I could kneel quietly and present every piece to God. If there’s anything I know with 100% certainty, it’s that God has got this. Just maybe not the way I have been praying for to this point.
A charge of fraternization, a charge of adultery, and an Article 15 presentation later, I was sitting in the shambles of a crumbling career and I knew I had to speak up. My Area Defense Counsel strongly encouraged me not to open up to the commanders about my situation. “It doesn’t meet the legal requirements for an assault, and you’ll just be giving them everything they need to bury you.” I understand that. I understand that it would admit that a “Relationship” (a term which turns my stomach) had happened and I had let this woman have what she wanted, under my own mental pretense that she wouldn’t wreck my life if I kept her happy. I decided I had to do it.
I opened up to them, took what was previously a restricted report, and made it unrestricted. In non-military terms, I took what was basically a secret between me, the SARC, my closest family, and my two attorneys, and I opened it up to be public knowledge. Something, the commanders have very clearly made sure doesn’t happen. I finally felt ‘free-ish’. Finally, they understood what had been going on, and that I’d been living the worst nightmare I could imagine, short of losing my wife and daughter. I wasn’t sure in my mind what would happen, but I hoped that I’d soon go back to flying. Soon, I’d go back to the thing I enjoy most about my Air Force job, which is training people to fight America’s wars with skill and precision.
Boy was I wrong to hope for that. I did a victim interview with our investigators and talked occasionally to the SARC and a chaplain. We went to marriage counseling and started building our marriage up on a new foundation of trust and vulnerability. Life outside the Air Force was great. I spent more time with my family than I had in a very long time, and I’ve been able to bond with my daughter in a way I couldn’t have if I was working full time.
The problem is that I still didn’t feel like me. I had re-defined myself as a husband and father, but the aviator still longed to get back in the airplane. So, I went to work and waited for an email telling me that my clearances had been restored. I did whatever I could to help the squadron in the very limited capacity that had been so graciously bestowed upon me by the people who were “looking out for me.” And it was during that time that I had extremely uncomfortable interactions with my leadership. I had my wing commander (top ranking person at our base) tell me “Man, when I heard about the unrestricted report I thought, really? Now?”
EXCUSE ME?!? I’m sorry that like the extreme majority of male victims in the military, I just wanted it to be left secret. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my squadron and my flying community by opening up, and most importantly I didn’t want to subject my family to this type of investigation. I didn’t want to do any of that. I’m sorry that it would have been more convenient for you, but it was my story to tell and it was always going to be something very few people ever knew about, until I was forced to by the threat of losing my career to allegations that were missing the Truth from the “substantiating evidence”.
Oh, and it got even better as the conversation went on. “Sorry we had to do this, but when we go to our commander’s course we are taught to approach it with the lens of ‘what would the Air Force Times headline look like?’ So, what would it look like if we were going to promote a guy to major and let him [have his dream assignment] with these CDI allegations against him?” I almost flew through the roof at that point. Here I was, battling depression, extreme anxiety, paranoia, and he’s telling me that it’s best for the organization because it would look bad in the newspaper if I was allowed to go back to my life? I thought the Air Force took care of its victims, but clearly, I was wrong.
7 weeks of waiting, and finally I was met with the proof of that statement. A memo saying that my victim interview was being added to the list of evidence for the Article 15, and that it would be sent up the chain as soon as I had my 3 days to review it. I don’t know if my feelings of depression, suicidal thoughts, and almost uncontrollable anger have ever been more prevalent in my life before I read that memo. I was devastated. Here was a command team basically telling me in written form “we don’t believe you.”
Not only did it feel like that, but the actual words that were said to me hurt even more. “If there’s any silver lining, it’s that we can start working to get your security clearances back so we can get you back to flying. Then, we can also start answering the question of where you’ll be working at [your next assignment]” WHAT? Silver lining? My dream assignment has been taken from me, I haven’t flown in 3 months and may never get to again, and you’re telling me that the last 7 weeks since I opened up about being a victim was just holding me in this gut-wrenching state of waiting and wondering, only to make me change the date and time on my article 15 paperwork?
I couldn’t believe it. I was raging with anger. I didn’t know what to do. I’m pretty sure I had to apologize for yelling so loudly into the phone when I notified my Attorney about the memo. So, I had a few really bad days, but then I went in and kept my cool, signed my paperwork, and went on about my day. I slowly let the anger and depression subside. I prayed hard. I prayed heavy. I found calm and peace.
If you’re still reading, and I hope you are, I want you to know this. I Am a Victim No More. That’s right. Nothing these commanders can take away from me will ever change the truth. Nothing can separate me from the truth of what happened to me. How it made me feel. And because I’m no longer a victim to the assault or to the Non-Judicial punishment that I’m threatened with, I can tell my story with peace in my soul. I tell this story not to bring attention to my own self, but to share it with those who are dealing with the same fear and anxiety I did.
For those of you out there who have been a victim of this horrible event, or events, I want you to know that there is always someone who will listen. The truth is all that matters. You can’t allow yourself to be trapped in fear and live in the shadows of embarrassment and doubt. Don’t blame yourself, and for the love of God, don’t let anyone else blame you either. This is not your fault, and this sure as hell isn’t your burden to bear alone. Do what is best for you, talk to someone. If you talk to a SARC, you don’t even have to file a report. Talk to a Chaplain. Talk to a friend or a family member you know will keep your secret and allow you to tell it on your own timeline to others. Just tell someone. Please! It is the best thing you could ever do. Don’t suffer in silence. Be strong. Be courageous. I believe in you, because I did it. I finally opened up and it changed my life. And that is why I Am a victim no more.